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Selecting Primary Sources for the Classroom: Supporting Student Research Skills

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In a recent post, Library of Congress Teacher-in-Residence Tom Bober described processes for selecting primary sources to use at different points in an instructional sequence. Among many ideas, he recommended using primary source sets and pairing items to help students develop and deepen content knowledge. Primary sources can also be selected to stimulate and support student investigations; look for primary sources that provoke intrigue and offer clues to give students starting points for further investigation.

The Americanese wall - as Congressman [John Lawson] Burnett would build it
The Americanese wall – as Congressman [John Lawson] Burnett would build it
Primary sources that can launch student investigations will:

  • Engage students;
  • Generate compelling questions; and,
  • Contain embedded information to shape research direction (dates, names, key words, important issues).

When I consider a primary source, I try to anticipate what learners will notice, connect with, and question, and how that analysis can lead  to additional investigation. For example,  The Americanese wall – as Congressman [John Lawson] Burnett would build it, selected from the primary source set Immigration: Challenges for new Americans, is visually engaging, provokes questions about immigration at the time the cartoon was published, connects to current issues, and includes a  name, Congressman Burnett.  The information “About this item” adds a date and the congressman’s full name.

Students might wonder what the literacy test was; they might notice that the wall is topped with open books, and that the weapons are pens.  They might notice that the people at the foot of the wall are most likely immigrants, being “welcomed” by Uncle Sam to “The Land of the Free.” After students analyze the primary source, support them in developing a question for further investigation and a research strategy.

They might wonder what Congressman Burnett’s role was in implementing the literacy test. They might also have questions about current legislation on immigration.

immigration legislation tracker
Excerpt from search results on “immigration” in the 114th Congress

To learn more about current legislation, students might turn to, starting with a keyword search on “immigration” in “Current Legislation.” They could explore the results, noting patterns such as what kinds of legislation has been proposed, and using the tracker to see where it is in the legislative process.

To learn more about Congressman Burnett, they might search in the Chronicling America database of historic American newspapers. Using the information from the cartoon, an initial search might narrow the dates to begin and end in 1916, keywords “Congressman Burnett” for 24 results. Browsing the results might lead to focusing on the article “Burnett Urges Support of His Literacy Test” to better understand his position and “Local Japanese Demand Veto of Burnett’s Bill” for arguments against the proposed legislation. (Along the way, they might also notice adjacent articles or advertisements, and experience the joy of serendipitous discoveries.)

Information gleaned from the research might help students develop answers, or it might help them to refine their questions and search again. In either case, they’re driven by questions that they generated themselves, based on interaction with a primary source selected because it both raises questions and offers clues to shape research and investigation.

Watch for our next installment in this series in the weeks ahead.

Comments (2)

  1. I really like this lesson. Thehisftoric cartoon is easy to understand and the link to current events can be made. For advanced study the searching for information on the senator using other portions of the LOC website is helpful in increasing knowledge and skill with the website.

  2. Thanks for the kind affirmation, Mary. If you use any of these ideas with students, we’d love to hear how they respond!

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